Thursday, 31 December 2015
I received a copy of this title, from lovereading.co.uk, in return for an honest review...
Most book reviewers receive their Christmas themed books at the end of the summer, and have them read and reviewed by September or October. I have to admit that I cannot do this. I can't read a Christmas novel while wearing a bikini, or when there is no fire in the grate. I need dark evenings, cozy jumpers and a variety of Christmas decorations around me. Hence, this is only my forth Christmas read this season, However, it's a cracker (see what I did there)!
When Bea is widowed in her early fifties, she is feeling lost and lonely. Her son has his own family and has moved on. her cafe, in Sydney, Australia, is her world and yet she still feels something is missing. Her memories come back to her and she dreams of her younger days with a heavy heart. When she is invitedd to join an online club for cafe owners worldwide, she learns how to use her laptop properly and finds some virtual friends. Her granddaughter, Flora comes for a visit and soon the girls are planning a visit to the other side of the world, where snow replaces sand and Christmas decorations don't look out of place. Scotland bites them with its chill, but embraces them with its charm. When they arrive at the Christmas Cafe, they step into a unknown scenario which may just change their lives forever...
This is my first time reading Amanda Prowse, yet I have many more of her titles on my bookshelves. The cover was calling to me, in all its twinkling glory and the fact that the author is compared to JoJo Moyes and Freya North could only be a good thing, right? The first few pages were tear-jerkers. Bea's husband is dying and her relationship with her son is taut. Having a child at a young age, as a single mum, can be a blessing in the early years as you have the energy and fitness levels to keep up with them, but it can also have its downsides. Bea feels like her son resents her, yet can't figure out why. \her daughter-in-law is standoffish and she rarely sees her granddaughter. She even has to invite herself over for Christmas dinner each year. Something's not right. When Flora gets in trouble at school, a trip to her grandmother's house seems the logical way of allowing some cooling time between herself and her parents. Here is where Flora and Bea get to really know each other and even learn a lot about themselves in the process. Edinburgh is described with tenderness, from the tartan carpets of the Balmoral Hotel, to the historical castle and King Arthur's Seat right down to the narrow side streets of the city, steeped in atmosphere. This is a huge culture shock for the two girls, who are used to flip flops, and year-long sunshine. However, the biggest shock is yet to come. The Christmas Cafe's owner, has a surprise and Bea never saw it coming...
This was my favourite Christmas read for a long time. Having it based on two continents adds a little something extra and the emotional scenes had my heart giving a little flutter (corny, but true). Bea is a great character, although I would be surprised that someone in their early 50s wouldn't know how to send an email or even know how to use a smart phone. 50s is the new 30s, don't you know! One of my favourite scenes is where the two girls are descending the aircraft steps, after landing in Edinburgh. While Bea has experienced Europes colder climate before, Flora is flabbergasted, as only an Australian could be :)
"..this was the kind of cold that shrank your goosepimpled skin against your limbs and chilled your bones until they felt brittle. The kind of cold that hurt your ears and made you want to crawl beneath a big fat duvet and not emerge until the summer showed its face."
Even though Christmas is approaching its end, there are still many dark nights to be had, sitting by the fire and losing yourself in a good book. You could do a lot worse than this festive novel. Charming, with great character, it blends grief with hope and shows how sometimes life does only begin in the later parts of our lives. I'm off to root out Amanda Prowse's other novels...
Perfect for fans of Emma Hannigan and Cecelia Ahern.
The Christmas Cafe is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage, here. The ebook can be ordered via amazon link below:
Friday, 18 December 2015
I received a copy of this title, from the publisher, in return for an honest review...
Hazel's twin sister, Lila, is getting married and asks Lila to be her wedding planner. Hazel was always the tomboy while her sister was into sparkles and ballet, but Hazel has a talent for picking just the right venue, food and extras. Lila's wedding is perfect and Hazel finds herself in demand. With a new flatmate and new career option, all is well in Hazel's world. There is one thing missing though. Her best friend, Sam. They grew up together and were like two peas in a pod, until last Christmas, when Hazel tried to kiss him. Since then, contact has been lost and she misses his presence. Watching all her clients, loved-up and ready to embark on their married lives, she feels a bit lonely. Is is case of always the wedding planner, never the bride?
Abby Clements has written a novel full of festiveness. Hazel is a sweetheart, who would do anything for anyone and makes the perfect wedding planner. Calm, concise and enthusiastic, without being brash or bossy. Her love of food wafts of the pages and similarly, the Christmas season is brought to life as the book approaches its end. The couples planning their wedding couldn't be more different yet Hazel deals with them all in a general way. There's no need for drama or meltdowns when Hazel is around. She misses her twin sister when she moves out to get married but new flatmate, Amber, more than makes up it. She is a whiz in the kitchen and is always there to brighten up Hazel's day. The only thing is, she has started dating Sam...
This is a wonderful, easy read. You can tell the author adores all things Christmassy and all the reader needs to do is sit back, relax and picture the cakes, the dresses and the atmosphere. No invitation required. An ideal read for over the holidays.
The Winter Wedding is published by Simon and Schuster and is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage, here or via amazon link below:
Wednesday, 16 December 2015
I received a copy of this via http://www.lovereading.co.uk/ in return for an honest review.
When five year old Anna is snatched from the school gates, the whole country watches the story unfold. Mother, Julia is first in the spotlight. A successful lawyer, the public dissect her life and begin their harsh judgments online. Newspapers hop on the bandwagon and use the family's story to increase sales. Father, Brian escapes most of the bitterness and instead retreats within himself. Through all this, Anna seems to be forgotten. The story of her mother’s failings as a parent seem to be what people thrive on. When Anna is found, her disappearance becomes an afterthought but Julia's nightmare continues.
Alex Lake has written a story that has echoes of Madeline McCann's disappearance. A missing child is bad enough, but add in some 'parental neglect' and you have some serious newspaper columns and bitter social media campaigns. Throughout the novel the reader hears the mother’s side of the story and while one can only imagine what it is like to suffer the fear and desperation of such a situation, Julia is not a likable mother. She is selfish, completely self-centred and does not seem to have an empathetic bone in her body. Her treatment of her husband is downright nasty and some of her snide and hurtful comments throughout the book had me wince with distaste. She is cruel and spiteful to anyone she considers below her and she seems to be lacking a vital part of anyones make up. Niceness. The plot is not too surprising as the blurb on the cover explains that Anna is found, and the police involvement in the case is very weak. This is an ok thriller that could have been a completely different book, had it been edited differently. More suspense and tension could have been added by not revealing Anna’s return on the cover. The imbalance between Julia and Brian was too extreme. He was an annoying weakling with no spine, she was the hard-faced bitch. Maybe a bit more realism could have lent some credibility to the characters. Poor Anna barely gets a look-in and the ‘investigation’ into her disappearance could have been played out. The book gains some momentum about forty pages from the end, but I found this too little, too late. The narrative surrounding social media activity during, and after, Anna’s disappearance was cleverly written. Twitter is a wild and wonderful source of ‘brave’ yet anonymous opinion and can be full of time-wasting trolls with no conscience. You can almost picture the heart-pounding, gut-wrenching moments where Julia would scroll through the cruel hashtags and see what people were saying about her. Did The McCanns do the same? Do they still?
Although this has already reached bestseller lists, and no doubt will remain there for a while longer, I was underwhelmed. Alex Lake is a pseudonym and while there are many suggesting it may be a female writer, I am unsure. There is a little lacking on the ‘mothering’ front, which may suggest a male writer. But, obviously, there’s a 50% chance I’m wrong. This is an easy read, ideal for dipping into on a train journey and not losing any sleep over. Maybe the next one will have more suspense from the start. A name to watch out for…
After Anna is published by Harper and is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy, here. The ebook can be ordered via amazon link below:
Sunday, 13 December 2015
Book Review - "The Secrets of Grindlewood: The Queen's Quest" by Jackie Burke. Review from Mia, aged 12.
We received a copy of this title, from the author, for review purposes...
Review by Mia, aged 12.
This book is the third installment in the Grindlewood series by Jackie Burke. The children and the animals have defeated the vile warlock, Wofeus. Life is running smoothly for the residents, until they are summoned by the Forest Queen, Lyra. She was turned into a tree by the Worfagons many years back. She wants the children's help to free her from the curse. But Queen Lyra is not as sweet as she used to be. She grows fond of Jamie's dog Timer, so she says she'll keep him if Jamie, Jemima, Luke and Abigail don't succeed in freeing her. The kids are each given an object to help them on her quest. The cure they have to find is split into four different parts; the Book of Potions and Spells, the Book of Light, the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Darkness. When these four Books are joined, they will form W.A.B.O.M. the Wandeleis Ancient Book of magic. But each Book is guarded by Gaurdians who get harder to battle every time. Great difficulties lie ahead of the children whn it is discovered that thre has been betrayal from somebody very close to the Queen. Will the children find the betrayer and uncover the W.A.B.O.M. in time?
This book was an amazing read, filled with intrigue, magic and brilliant battle scenes. I especially loved the fact it's a fantasy book. I love fantasy books! Like the other installments in the series, I didn't want to put it down. Th pages were laden with mystery, secrets and feats of awesome bravery.
I recommend this book for ages 9+.
The Secrets of Grindlewood: The Queen's Quest is available in paperback and can be ordered, with Free Worldwide Postage, here.
Tuesday, 8 December 2015
When Susan, from TheBookTrail, asked me to write a feature on my favourite Irish book, I was both honoured and overwhelmed. Just how can I choose ONE title, from the ever-expanding list of amazing Irish fiction reads? I seem discover new talent on a weekly basis and while I have a firm favourite author list, when asked to pick just one book it has been known to cause the onset of a rash! Making it even more difficult was the unlimited genre area. I adore Irish literature, devour crime fiction and have read some stunning short story collections. Irish historical fiction is in a class of its own, with our national identity being the narrative for many a wonderful tale. Quite simply, this was a momentous task, and one I struggled with. In the end, I kept coming back to the same name: Sebastian Barry. One of our finest writers of current times, I then had to whittle down his amazing titles to just one. Combining my love of literature and historical fiction, I chose this gem. If you have not read this novel, I would highly recommend you pick up a copy over the Christmas period and discover the powerful prose, strong storyline and evocative essence of Private Willie Dunne, a soldier in WWI. Enjoy. It was not an easy choice!
" A Long Long Way" by Sebastian Barry
Being a fan of Sebastian Barry, I was delighted to see that this novel was a reading assignment as part of Irish Literature in my English course in college. I had yet to read it, so it was actually an assignment I was really looking forward to.
This novel tells the tale of young volunteer Private Willie Dunne, of The Royal Dublin Fusiliers in World War I. Like most young Irishmen of the time, Willie joins the British Army after hearing James Connolly recommend that to do so could only benefit Ireland's cause. Young, naive and impressionable, he sees this as a way of impressing his widowed father, himself a high ranking member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Willie was a slight boy and never reached the minimum height of 6 Foot required to join the Police Force and saw his recruitment into His Majesty's Army as a very close second. A teenager, he had a rose-tinted idea of what army life would be like, off fighting The German's abroad and it is with great excitement he, and other Irish volunteers, board the boat to fight for Britain.
1st Battalion of Dublin Royal Fusiliers 1915
He leaves behind his father, three sisters and his sweetheart, Gretta. The pride he feels as he sets off is juxtaposed by the knowledge that he won't see his loved ones for a long time. The new recruits are waved off from the monuments of Sackville Street and they march with pride. It is 1915 and while there are ripples of Nationalism throughout the streets of Dublin, most of these young soldiers genuinely believe they are off to do a great deed for Ireland and its future.
Recruitment poster from WW1, used in Ireland
The novel introduces the reader to the life of a new recruit, thrown in the deep end of a bitter, dirty and atrocious war. A war that we are all aware of, but not from the perspective of a young Irish man, barely old enough to be considered an adult, yet fighting for a country other than his own. The horror he witnesses from his very first day in the trenches, is not sugar coated and is realistic, graphic and intense. His thoughts wander from shock, to terror, to a childlike longing for his family and lover.
GPO, Dublin 1916
Willie is granted leave and docks in Dublin full of hope and eagerness. It is now 1916, and unbeknownst to Willie, things have changed in Ireland. As he heads back to re-join his brigade, he notices something amiss. There is tension in the air and before long, the company are ordered to disembark, back onto the streets of Dublin. They hear gunshots and believe they are being attacked by Germans. When they are told of of a Republican rising, they are genuinely shocked and cannot understand how Irishmen could be fighting fellow Irishmen. Willie witnesses the shooting of a young IRA man and watches the man die. This is a confusing time, as these rebels seem no different to Willie. When he returns to billet, later that day, he is still covered in the mans blood and none the wiser as to what is really happening at home.
" he noticed that his uniform was badly stained with blood. It was the blood of that young man dying. Willie scrubbed his face at the basin provided and he tried a few scrubs at the cloth. There were instructions in his soldier's small-book for the cleaning of khaki. Yellow soap and a little ammonia in a solution of water was advised. But he had no yellow soap and he had no ammonia. He tried again in the morning but in the main he carried the young man's blood to Belgium on his uniform."
Flanders, Belgium 1916
The novel continues with the protagonists view of life at war. There are no glamorous scenes of beautiful scenery, red sunsets or love stories. Just a glimpse at the realism of war, death, fear and loyalty. These young men are loyal to their fellow soldiers, not caring whether they are being loyal to Ireland or the Britain. They were volunteers, but did they understand what they were volunteering for? One young recruit tells Willie that he joined up after a young lady gave him a white feather and suggested he should join the great fight, rather than being a coward. He was so moved by this girl's beauty, that he agreed, and would not go back on his word. Others joined so they could provide an income for their families at home. It is unclear how many of these young men realised what they were getting themselves into, and it this novel also looks at how they were once seen as heroes by their fellow Irishmen, but this opinion changed rapidly after the Easter Rising in 1916. The next time Willie returned on leave, he was not seen as a gallant young Irish man, but as a traitor to his country.
All throughout the novel, the reader becomes a firsthand witness to Willie's battles. His battles on the Fields of Belgium, his battles of his conscience and his battles to survive as an Irishman in a British war.
I cannot recommend this novel enough. My respect for Sebastian Barry's talents and skills as a writer was already immense, but I think this novel may stay with me forever. The prose is hypnotic, the characters ( loosely based on real characters - see links below for details ) perfectly constructed and the narrative strong and true. There is a raw elegance in this book. It is emotional, regardless of the readers nationality, showing the protagonist as a genuine, innocent young man who just wanted to be part of the bigger picture. Simply stunning.
Unmarked Graves, Flanders, WWI
The character of Willie Dunne may well have been based on the famous ballad about Willie McBride, from "The Green Fields of France". Watch the video here .
The Character Jessie Kirwan may have been based on WWI poet Francis Ledgwidge, who was profoundly affected by the news that he had backed the wrong horse and joined the British Army rather than staying and fighting for the Irish Republic. Read about him here.
A Long Long Way is published by Faber and Faber and is available in paperback, with Free Worldwide Postage, here. The ebook can be ordered via amazon link below:
Sunday, 6 December 2015
I received an ARC of this title, from the publishers, for review purposes...
The Perfect Couple. We all know one, right? The beautiful, adoring wife. The handsome and successful husband. A home straight from the pages of a magazine. A life we are supposed to aspire to. But, sometimes there is just something not quite right with the picture. An uneasy feeling perhaps? A random stray thought entering our minds? What is it really like behind their closed doors? Is it all rosy in the garden or are there shades of grey mixed in with all the light beaming down from their happiness?
Jack and Grace are one such perfect couple. He, a prominent lawyer, is a voice for victims of domestic abuse and an enigmatic, charismatic addition to any party. She, a stay at home wife, is the epitome of elegance, always immaculately turned out, standing proudly at her husbands side. Although they have no children they plan on becoming full-time guardians of Grace's sister, Millie, who lives in a care facility. The family will be complete and their perfect life can only get better. Or can it? One new member of their social circle has noticed that she can never seem to get Grace alone and she senses a tense undercurrent in the air. Grace may appear to have it all, but something just doesn't seem right. The doors to their beautiful home are firmly shut and their lives shrouded in abstract glory. How long before someone cracks through the facade?
This a debut to die for. Although not published until Spring 2016, it is well worth pre-ordering and devouring on publication day. B.A. Paris uses clever techniques and skillful writing to bring us into the pastel-perfect world of Grace and Jack. One where white, well pressed clothing can be practical, houses are to be admired rather than lived in and appearances are not always what they seem.. The tension builds up from the very first chapter, when we see Grace stuffing forbidden chocolates into her mouth while defiantly looking at her husband. They are holding a dinner party for friends and the atmosphere is slightly off-kilter, although mostly unobserved by their guests. Jack is obviously not what he seems and as the reader turns the pages, it is with great unease. What will we discover? Is Grace a victim of circumstance or has Jack just chosen the wrong kind of wife? How can anyone maintain such a perfect lifestyle without cracking up? Why are only some of the rooms in their house available to view? The questions keep building and the pages almost turn themselves. I intended to read this book at my leisure as the publication date was in the distant future, but this grabbed me from page one and I devoured every thrilling paragraph. This is a psychological thriller that would make every train journey, bus trip or lunchtime coffee break go at breakneck speed. Just be careful you don't miss your stop, or forget to get back to work. A highly addictive, top class debut from a chilling new voice in fiction. This novel will have you examining those so-called perfect couples you know, and wondering what really does go on behind closed doors...
Behind Closed Doors will be published in paperback and ebook format by Harlequin Mira on 11 Feb 2016. You can pre-order your copy from amazon link below:
Monday, 30 November 2015
Following on from yesterday's post of Top Reads from Literary and General Fiction, here are the other books we loved this year...
A Dublin Fairytale by Nicola Colton.
Fiona has been given the task of taking some 'special witches brew' to her sick Granny. With a map of Dublin in hand, she sets off through the capital's streets. She passes the duck pond in St. Stephen's Green, scoots by Trinity College of Sorcery and encounters a Troll at the Ha'penny Bridge. Although she is afraid, she remains brave and even befriends a dragon at The Spire. The Magic Market, at Moore Street is full of wonder and amazement, until Fiona's basket is stolen by the Big Bag Wolf. But she finds herself surrounded by new friends and even invites them to her Granny's house. The little girl, in the red raincoat, shows young readers around the wonderful city of Dublin, while the story of Red Riding Hood is re-told in an enchanting way.
This is a completely delightful picture book. The pictures are full of colour and show off Dublin's best known landmarks, in all their glory. Parents and teachers will be more than happy to read this sweet book to their children and pupils alike. The illustrations alone make this one of my all-time favourite children's books. This would make an ideal Christmas gift for anyone with Irish roots (I know my family abroad will love this, especially with Free Worldwide Postage) or just for any grandparents who love to sneak a bit of history in to their story-time sessions. Even just for parents who know and love Dublin. It may inspire a trip to the city, with time to feed the ducks in St. Stephen's Green, or a wander through the grounds of Trinity College. This story-book will fill the imagination of both children and adults alike. An sublime debut, which should be added to all children's bookshelves...
A Dublin Fairytale is published by The O'Brien Press and is available in hardback and can be ordered, with Free Worldwide Postage and 10% discount, here.
The Book of Learning by ER Murray.
REVIEW BY MIA, AGED 12.
This is the first book in the Nine Lives Trilogy. It's about 12-year-old Ebony Smart, who lives with her Grandpa Tobias and pet rat, Winston. When Tobias dies, Ebony has to go to Dublin to live with a newly discovered aunt. Reluctantly she goes, leaving her childhood behind.
When she arrives at her new home, she learns that she is one a few people who can reincarnate. During a tour of the house with her Aunt Ruby, Ebony finds a mysterious book that has her name on it. Later that night she steals the book and reads about the reincarnating race and a guardian who can access the place where all the souls are kept. Also a dangerous man called Icarus Bean is out three somewhere, looking for Ebony. With the help of Aunt Ruby, Winston, two pre-historic wildcats, a new mind-reading friend called Zach and her past-selves, can Ebony find the guardian and Icarus Bean?
I loved this book so much that I made Lego figures of Zach and Ebony, and I don't usually mix up my Lego figures! My mind was racing when I was reading this book, trying to piece together the clues, but I had to read to figure it out.
I can't wait for the next installment in the series. I think this is another book to put on my favourites list...
I recommend this book for ages 10+.
The Book of Learning is published by Mercier Press and is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage, here
Conor's Caveman: The Amazing Adventures of Ogg by Alan Nolan
REVIEW FROM ENDIJA, AGED 8.
Conor's Caveman is a great book with lively characters and a great sense of humour. My favourite character is Ogg. You would think he's not smart but he is. He remembers his family from 6000 years ago and that's something we can't do.
The story starts off at a scout trip. Conor and Charlie are put on the same team. They go up a high hill and it gets foggy. They wander off and find a caveman named Ogg. A few days later Conor's mum still doesn't know about Ogg, but some scientists do. They try to capture Ogg at a scout trip.
I loved this book and I thought it was great! Alan Nolan is a great author. I enjoy him and I hope you will too...
I recommend it for ages 7+
Conor's Caveman is published by The O'Brien Press is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage, here.
Darkmouth: Worlds Explode by Shane Hegarty
Review from Mia, aged 11.
This is the second book in the thrilling Darkmouth series by Irish author Shane Hegarty. It continues the adventures of the last Legend Hunter, Finn, who has been frantically searching for a way to save his father. Finn's dad is stranded in the Infested Side, another world filled with blood-thirsty monsters. After stumbling across crystals covered with strange red dust, Finn attempts to open a gateway to the Infested Side. Accompanied with his best friend Emmie and an annoying man, that keeps on telling Finn how many rules he's breaking, he ventures through the gateway. This journey leads the group to befriending a monster, weird radio messages that might be from Finn's dad, being attacked by wolf-like creatures, time travel, explosions and finding his grandfather. In all this confusion, will Finn find his dad?
This was a striking novel that didn't take long to get exciting. A very well-written book by an amazing author. I really enjoyed it and it was extremely funny. I liked the artwork in it aswell. Darkmouth: Worlds Explode is in my top ten books at the moment.
I recommend this for age 9+
You can read Mia's review of the first in the Darkmouth series here.
Darkmouth: Worlds Explode is published by HarperCollins and is available in hardback and ebook format.
You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage, and 18% discount, here.
The Midnight Carnival by Erika McGann.
Review from Mia Madden, aged 12.
This book is the thrilling fourth installment in The Demon Notebook series, from Erika McGann. This time, Grace and her friends come across a carnival in the park with no posters or flyers to tell them about it. The girls take a liking to it and go there every evening. They meet a bearded ballerina called Justine, lizard-skinned Drake and strong-woman Agata, who make good friends with the young witches. But Adie soon gets over it and tries to contact her buddies from Hy-Breasel (in the last book). She ends up bringing home a faery that seems impossible to beat. So, she goes to Bob (also known as the mirror man from book 2). Back at the carnival, Jenny gets kicked out of magic class and decides to train with Agata. Grace soon finds out there's an evil spell keeping the carnival going and Justine asks the witches' help to find an ancient straw doll that's supposedly keeping the acts alive. Will the girls find the doll and will Adie get rid of the faery?
Like every one of Erika McGann's books, I loved this one. My favourite character is Una because she's the funny one of the group and her catchphrase, which is 'fudgeballs', is hilarious. With loads of twists and turns in it, I just couldn't predict what was going to happen next. I love Erika's writing so much, that Erika is my Confirmation name! Five stars for this one...
I recommend this book for ages 9+.
The Midnight Carnival is published by The O'Brien Press and is available in paperback and ebook format. You can get your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage, here.
One by Sarah Crossan.
Conjoined twins, Grace and Tippie, have led a fairly sheltered life. Surrounded by family and friends, home-schooled, with local people used to seeing them all the time and therefore not being the object of people's stares. All this changes when finances become an issue, and they have to move into a new public school. While they continue their normal routine, like any regular child, they are subject to gawps, stares and barely concealed curiosities. They struggle to process their new situation but find two friends to share their burden. All is going (relatively) well, until one twin becomes ill. A decision needs to be made, and only the girls can make it...
Written in verse, this novel brings Grace and Tippi's world to life with beauty, grace and warmth. The girls are more than sisters, they are as one. They share a body, for sure, but so much more than that, they share a soul. Best friends, with different tastes in food and boys, with two very different personalities. They may be conjoined, but are two intelligent, beautiful girls who need to be seen separately. Falling in love, visiting the doctor, choosing what to eat, all these things require consideration on each others part, yet rarely cause tension. The bond that they have is something that could never be understood by any single person.
Sarah Crossan has crafted a novel that draws the reader into the lives of two girls, united from birth, as if she had injected their stories directly into the bloodstream. As you turn the pages, you feel their feelings, see what they see and think their thoughts. Each character is shaped in their own individual style and their story becomes a part of your life. I began to slow down as I approached the end of the book, as I was dreading turning the last page. I did not want to say goodbye to these girls. I wanted to read more, and more about them. It only took a few minutes to settle into reading a novel that is written in verse, as it is so beautifully composed. The words are clever, well thought-out and very lyrical. Each verse has a title, rather like a chapter, but they come fast and are fluid, blending together seamlessly. Aimed at the YA market, but suitable for any confident reader, this should be added to everyone's wishlist, immediately. Since closing the back cover, I have missed Grace and Tippi, their sister, their parents and their friends. I was a part of their world for a very short time, but what a world it was...
One is published by Bloomsbury Childrens and is available in hardback and ebook format.
You can order your copy,with Free Worldwide Postage and 10% discount, here.
Asking For It by Louise O'Neill.
Eighteen year old, Emma O'Donovan, has it all. Looks, brains, a great group of friends and a great social life. All that changes when she is found on her front doorstep, bruised and blistered, with no recollection of how she got there. She vaguely remembers a party, the previous night, and drinking copious amounts of booze, popping a pill and flirting her ass off. After that, it is blank. When she returns to school, the next day, it becomes very obvious that something big has happened. No one will talk to her, there are whispers and pointing fingers and everyone seems to know what happened at the party. When she discovers a facebook page, with photographs of her from that night, she begins to realise that her life has just collapsed. But was she asking for it?
I can honestly say that I have not read a book that affected me as much as this one did. I was so upset by the contents that my heart was pounding in anger, my hands ached from clenched fists and my heart broke a little more with each page. I had to take a break, halfway through, but read it within four hours. There was no way I could have put this away for another day.
Louise O'Neill has taken the concept of 'consent' and brought it to her fictional story, based on many real-life cases. Instead of setting the book in a big city, or with older characters, she has used the cusp of adulthood for her protagonist, Emma, and shown how a young woman, with a cocky, self assured exterior, can be an insecure child underneath it all. The eighteen year old has been complimented on her extraordinary beauty since she was a baby and has learned to use this to her advantage. Her stature and confidence means that she is the 'it' girl. Everyone wants to be her friend, her lover, just be near her. She gets away with a lot because of this; she can be a real bitch to her friends, uses people for her own gain and helps herself to what she believes she deserves. However, the minute she closes the door to her own home, she reverts to childlike behaviour, with her mother pressing her pressure points. She is constantly reminded by her mother of her need to maintain her poise and her beauty, while her father places her on a 'Princess' pedestal. She wants it all. Her whole life she has had it all. The party is another example of her need to be queen bee. She desires attention from men and women. She thinks the girls should want to be like her, while the men should crave her. Add alcohol and drugs into the mix and things very quickly descend into the stuff of nightmares.
The novel starts off like a typical YA book, friends hanging out, classroom chats, after school chats and online banter. A host of characters are introduced, very quickly, and there is a balance of males and females. The night of the party changes the books direction and the reader is sucked into the very real and raw events that occur on that fateful night. There is no easy way to describe the pain I felt in my gut, at this stage. It was a bit like when you receive some terrible news, and your breathing and heart rate just shift, leaving a lump in your throat and a pain in your soul. Sure, Emma was not a likeable character, especially when drunk. Sure, she was flirty, cunning and out to get what she wanted. But that does NOT make it right. Ever. It is irrelevant what she wore (with another, more staid character even mentioning that she owned the same dress), or whether she had previous sexual relationships. Quite simply, she did not consent. O'Neill cleverly uses an unlikable character to bring that point home. There is NO excuse for rape, or sexual assault.
The second half of the book examines Emma's life a year after the event. This is almost as distressing as the party scene, as the reader sees her world collapse, along with the rest of the family. The accused are experiencing things very differently to the victim and the rural community are taking sides. The writing is sharp, honest, brutal and shows how backward the world is, in coming forward. This is a book marketed as YA, yet should be read by everyone over sixteen years of age, regardless of gender, to highlight the injustice of our legal system, our outdated attitudes to women and encourage discussion of what is 'consent'. An outstanding book, not to be ignored. For the sake of females everywhere, present and future generations...
Asking for is published by Quercus.
You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage and 13% discount, here.
Dear Cathy, Love Mary by Catherine Conlon & Mary Phelan.
Who can remember writing letters, on real paper, using a pen? And then popping said letter into an envelope (preferably matching the writing paper) and heading to the post office to buy a stamp? Usually the letters involved lots of angst-ridden prose and juicy gossip. Often being sent to a friend or relative who had emigrated or just headed off for some summer work. Less access to telephones, prohibitive costs when you managed to find a working public telephone, and a lack of internet, meant we all had to make an effort to stay in touch. This non-fiction title, from Penguin Ireland, sees a full two-sided conversation between a pair of Irish teenage girls, separated by the miles of sea between Ireland and France, in 1983. Cathy has taken an au-pair job in Brittany, while Mary has stayed behind, in South Tipperary, to study accountancy. The girls embark on their journey to adulthood in different countries, but united with their love of correspondence. The best 'fancy paper' is brought out and letters fly back between the girls at a steady pace.
The reader is treated to (almost completely) unedited transcripts of these letters, and is thrown back to the days of records, tapes and limited TV viewing. Chris deBurgh, The Eurovision Song Contest and Dallas are the topics of conversation. The latest fashion is dissected and gossip is ping-ponged, back and forth, with great aplomb. Boys are on their minds, suntans revered and independence is something to be a little afraid of. The cost of stamps is on their minds at times, and phone calls are few and far between. The local newspaper is passed on to Brittany and the rose of Tralee is a great source of material for girls litany of events. Photos of the actual letters are dotted throughout the book, and show the effort Cathy and Mary went to, when writing to each other.
This is a wonderful, nostalgic look back to 1980s Ireland, in all its backward glory. The church still had a handle on society; with contraception, divorce and abortion all up for debate. The girls were full of innocence and still enjoyed knitting and country walks, rarely venturing into cities or even local pubs. Their outlook for their respective futures are fairly bleak, as Ireland in 1983 was suffering from very high unemployment and the holy grail of jobs was a pensionable post in the Bank. Not so different to today, so...
This is a book for anyone who had a pen pal, who was told by their career guidance teacher that au-pairing abroad was the way to go, or for those of us who collected 'fancy paper' and stalked the postman. Basically, for anyone who remembers the suffocation of 1980s Ireland, but with a hint of nostalgia. The days pre-internet, pre-walkman,(never mind i-pod) and the times when a letter from a friend would light up your day, sometimes even your week. I foresee a huge influx of non-fiction titles, with all kinds of correspondence within its pages, coming to the bestseller lists in the near future. This one deserves a place right up there. It is warm, charming and full of youthful innocence. Ireland may have been in the depths of moral decline (according to the Catholic Church) but these two young women were perfect examples of how the biggest tragedy was actually the mass unemployment that divided the nation into two camps; those who could stay, and those who could not. A narrative that is echoing once again through our country...
Dear Cathy, Love Mary is published by Penguin Ireland and is available in hardback and ebook format. You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage and 15% discount, here.
Bleach House Library Book of the Year 2015
This was my favourite book of 2015. While not a comfortable read, by any stretch of the imagination, it has such an important subject matter and should be required reading for anyone, male or female, over the age of fifteen. Louise O'Neill has taken the age-old phrase 'asking for it' and made us all reach into our souls to see if there is ever such a thing...
Truly clever, articulate and memorable. Left me sucker punched for days after turning the last page. A must-read!
Sunday, 29 November 2015
It is that time of the year again. Time to look back on all books I have read since the 1st January and decide which ones were my favourite. Always a difficult post, as I have enjoyed some wonderful books, both fiction and non-fiction this year. I will break them up into genre and hope that I may inspire some of to pick up a title, or two, either as a gift or just for yourself. Here they are:
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
One man and his dog. Not an original idea, but this is no ordinary novel.
This is my favourite novel of the decade.
This debut comes from the winner of 2014 Davy Byrnes Award, so I had a sneaky suspicion that I was starting to read something special. It took me about thirty seconds of reading to know, rather than suspect, that this was a novel to be savoured. From the prologue, to each individual chapter (each attributed to a season) and from paragraph to line, I slowly inhaled the story and let it take over. I was transported from a cold bedroom in Co. Louth to the rural villages of the Irish Midlands, stopping off in the odd coastal towns. The potholed roads, the long twisting laneways, the silent main streets and the family run pubs and petrol stations. What a change from the usual dual carriageways of our daily lives. As I turned the pages, I was reluctant to do so. The knowledge that I had to finish this book was something that I was ignoring, instead choosing to place my bookmark in with hesitation and delaying the inevitable. I would place the book at arms length, glance at it, close my eyes and re-read the latest pages in my mind. Now, I am aware that that this makes me sound slightly deranged, but those who know me can surely picture it. Eventually, I could hold off no more. The bookmark was removed for the last time and I faced the final pages. I felt like I was losing a friend. I was almost certain how the ending was going to shape up, and I was in denial. A big deep breath and it was over.
I am still a bit bereft.
The protagonist in this tale is not named, however the mystery of his name is easily solved. He has a diminished mental capacity which makes him the same level as a child of approximately nine years old. The reader is left to imagine this gentle giant with an abundance of innocence and years of loneliness and isolation. He adopts an ex-badger baiting dog, who he christens OneEye, and here begins an incomprehensible story of devotion.
Sara Baume has taken the idea of friendship to a new level, in my opinion. The 'companionship' concept does not come close to the depth of feeling described in this novel. A child may feel this way about a special blanket, sobbing uncontrollably when parted from it. A recently widowed man may have a shadow of this feeling visible across his face. A mother may feel this as she watches her son head off to war. Such is the depth of the friendship between Ray and OneEye. Each chapter is sprinkled with seasonal sensations and each line is written with the most sensual prose I have encountered from a contemporary author. The mood, the tempo, the minimal dialogue and the outstanding descriptive passages made for an emotional journey, albeit on a small island with basically just one character. I could go on to reveal more plot line and quote some of the poetic verses contained within the narrative, but I am going to leave that to the lucky person who is reading this novel for the first time. I can never have that honour again, but will certainly enjoy my re-reads.
A massive congratulations to Sara Baume and Tramp Press. You have raised the bar for Irish, and International, fiction...
Spill Simmer Falter Wither is published by the amazing team at Tramp Press. The title is available in paperback and you can get your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage and 12% discount, here.
Eggshells by Caitriona Lally
Vivian is not great at social interaction. Actually, Vivian is extremely awkward in company and can go days without speaking to another human being. A grown-up orphan, she lives in an inherited house in Dublin's North inner city. She has sporadic contact with her sister, also called Vivian, and avoids her neighbours as much as possible. However, she would like to have friends, have a purpose to her days and someone to bounce her random thoughts off. Lemonfish, her decrepit goldfish, is not one for words, so she advertises for a friend. But Vivian, being the individual that she is, only wants a friend called Penelope. No nicknames, like Pen or Penny. She has her reasons, one being her love for certain words and their formations. When she receives a reply, Vivian embraces the idea of friendship, despite initial reservations, and travels outside her comfort zone. The reader is brought on a memorable journey, through the streets of Dublin, where Vivian looks upon the city from a unique angle. She sees places, landmarks and road signs unlike most of us. She sees colours where we may see grey, history in place names long ignored and symmetry that is taken for granted. But can one survive the streets of Dublin when unable to converse to an acceptable norm? Vivian walks the streets, to a certain pattern, determined to find answers within the city limits...
Vivian may be the most endearing character I have encountered in modern Irish fiction. Like Jonesy, from Donal Ryan's The Thing About December, there is a raw, honest and innocent feel about her. Caitriona Lally shuns the label of 'mental illness' and shows how the most intelligent minds can often hide behind the facade of awkwardness and insecurity. Vivian's personal hygene, for example, is atrocious, as she doesn't see the need to conform to the 'norm'. She is afraid of her own reflection and sees no need to change her clothes on a regular basis. To her, food is fuel, money is for the bare basics and the real goal in life is to find harmony in words, on the streets, in history and in books. When she makes an effort to conform, albeit in her typical unusual way, there are hilarious consequences. A trip to the hairdressers in the City's largest department store actually made me laugh aloud, while her attempts to gain the friendship of a taxi driver had a mixture of humour and sadness blended together. Vivian's sister is riddled with sibling embarrassment and disdain, yet she is aware that she is tied to her namesake forever. Their interaction is uncomfortable from her perspective, yet her oblivious sister tries her best to blend into their family unit.
Lally has created a character which will remain forever etched in my mind. Vivian is a woman who many would cross the road to avoid, yet could enrich the lives of others. Her idiosyncrasies may seem extreme and would make you wonder if such a character would survive without access to cash on a regular basis (not really touched on in the novel). But, this is fiction, and like The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simpsion, Eggshells is such a clever read, using the protagonist as a way of making the reader question the accepted 'norms' of our everyday lives. There is a also a touch of magic injected into Dublin's Northside, which is a welcome change to the more fiction-populated areas on the Southside. No need for leafy suburbs and canal walks, when Vivian shows the hidden gems on the other side of the Liffey. Some may say that not much happens in this debut novel. I would disagree. It is full of sincerity, spacial awareness, a reverse view of today's expectations and an massively memorable character. Highly recommended for lovers of Irish literary fiction...
Eggshells is published by Liberties Press and is available in paperback and ebook format.
You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage, here.
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor
Emily Dickinson loves words more than people. She notices the beauty in the minutia of nature and sees random darkness of the world around her. Quite content to remain within the confines of her house and gardens in Amhurst, she adores her friend Susan, is indifferent to her family and whiles away her hours writing verse, in her bedroom. However, when a new maid arrives from Ireland she is strangely drawn to her chatty and inquisitive nature. Ada is not backward in coming forward and balances out the stuffiness of Amhurst, delightfully. There is life injected into the house and Emily and Ada become unlikely friends. The smell of baking lingers in the downstairs kitchen and pantry, the sound of chat is heard where there was formerly silence and Ada's beau is a frequent visitor to the Dickinson kitchen. Ada's life is altered one fateful evening and things slowly begin to unravel. A fear of the unknown, a lack of family and a dreadful illness cause Ada to become a problem for the Dickinson family. Emily is determined to help, in whatever way she can, but can she save Ada? Is their friendship strong enough to go beyond the barrier of the staff/employer divide?
To say I was chomping at the bit to read this novel is a bit of an understatement. I have been a fan of Emily Dickinson's work since studying her for my school exams. Not only are her words profound, intense and memorable, but researching her life was an unexpected pleasure. The 'crazy' lady, locked in her bedroom with no company but for her poems. Dark, depressed and dreary. This is what many have come to believe about Emily's life and words. But this is an incomplete, and perhaps debatable or inaccurate, picture. Nuala O'Connor has identified with the woman behind the poetry. The human being who devoured literature, loved her friend and sister-in-law dearly, appreciated nature for its simple existence and who said :
"Hope is a thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all - "
Each chapter is given a unique title, which lends a feeling of a more intimate read. It also means the reader can return to favourite passages quite easily. The chapter lengths are short, yet each contains an equal measure of literary delight. There are no fillers here. For the first time, I am considering buying the audio book, to soak up the eloquent words from another perspective.
The author has taken a legendary poet and given her a voice through fiction. Using wonderful prose, elegant style and respectful narrative, she has brought Emily to life. Her famed 'darkness' is not relevant to this story, her love of flora and fauna, her trusting nature and her adoration of the written word are the important factors. Her unexpected closeness to the family maid is the core of this tale. Ada is what Emily needs, and Emily is what Ada needs. Two very different women, two vastly different walks of life, yet two characters who understand each other more than anyone.
Meticulous research has led to a novel full of detail, warmth, depth and beauty. It is historical fiction with e
legance and integrity. Just as Miss Emily Dickinson deserves...
Miss Emily is published by Sandstone Press and is available in paperback and ebook format.
How quickly could you spot a serial killer? Male? Female? Young? Old? In fact, most of us know that anyone of us could be a killer. There are obviously recurring themes when you research the lives of these killers; dreadful childhoods, lack of love and support, lack of feelings etc etc... but very few people think of these things when they bump into a stranger on the street or park beside them at the supermarket. Who is standing in line alongside you at the library? How often have you seen the same person at the bus stop beside your local coffee shop? Can you continue to believe that there is inherent goodness within us all, or should you start to doubt everyone you encounter? There are no answers to these questions, by the way, but this is a book that will make you think about who you can trust and how much should you believe to be true.
The killer in Graeme Cameron's debut novel is very different to the ones we are used to reading about. There is no swagger, no preferred 'type', no bigger plan. He is just a confused man with a soft centre, who happens to trap women and sometimes murders them. A man with an average appearance, a likability about him and an urge to hunt and kill. He seems confused. He wants to be the nice guy, genuinely has a good heart and, as far as serial killers go, treats his hostages fairly decently. There is a gentleness about him which confuses not only his victims, but the reader too. One minute you are shocked at his secret cellar and the mere idea of his entrapment of these women. The next you are willing him on as he answers questions from the police who have their suspicions about him. He knows himself that he is not 'normal' and even drops hints to people he encounters. The writing is both shocking and comical at the same time, The character is tragic yet warm, devious yet innocent and full of equal measures of darkness and warmth. A very clever narrative which has echos of truth about it (The case of Natasha Kampusch comes to mind straight away, while further into the novel there are similarities to the hunting style of serial killer Robert Hanson), the novel is one that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won't let go. You know he is a despicable man who derserves to be caught, but the almost child-like innocence he portrays at the same time makes you doubt it. Like 'Dexter', the TV show serial killer, you are almost praying he won't be caught. There is no doubt that the twisted mind of this man is not someone who should be allowed to roam the streets, among the 'normal', but there is more than one person who wants him around...
I almost inhaled this book in one sitting. It is clever, sassy, different and inspiring. A brave new voice in the world of thrillers. A voice that demands to be heard, and remembered. Bravo Graeme Cameron. Who wants 'Normal', in fiction, all the time??? A massive thumbs up from Bleach House Library!
Normal is published by Harlequin MIRA is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy with Free Worldwide Postage, and 10% discount, here.
Freedom's Child by Jax Miller.
Freedom Oliver is a drunk. She is trouble. She is desperate. She is in Witness Protection. She needs to find her daughter. The daughter that she only held for a few minutes, over twenty years ago. Something sinister has happened and nothing can hold Freedom back any longer. Just who will she have to take down on her journey?
This debut from US born author, Jax Miller, is unusual. It uses the format of a crime thriller (good guys, bad guys, murder, mayhem and clever detective work), yet there is no real detective. There is badness in the goodies and some of the bad guys lean toward the good side. The past is brought into the present and ongoing nightmares become reality.
Freedom has pushed everyone away from her since she lost the most important things in her life; her children. Accused of murdering her husband, years before, she signed her son and daughter over for adoption, believing she was providing them with the best possible future. An acquittal, re-location and name change means that she has no contact with her children, but she keeps an eye on them via social media. When Rebekah, her daughter, stops posting online, Freedom is not the only one who notices. So does Mason, Freedom's son. He fears for his sisters safety and returns to their childhood home, in a religious compound. A place he had hoped never to see again. However, he is not welcome and he needs to turn detective himself, in order to help his sister. Mason is not aware that Freedom is also en-route to search for Rebekah and is being trailed by her dead husband's family, who are keen on revenge. There are also more eyes focused on Freedom than she realises. But are they watching with good intent, or bad?
The novel opens with a confident approach. A strong female protagonist, ballsy, tough, determined and yet flawed. Booze is Freedom's drug of choice and sex is just a quick fix. She has no ties, no family, no links to her past and a seriously bad temper. Working in a trucker bar, fighting her way through life on a daily basis, occasionally having convenient sex, she trusts only two people. Her female boss and a hooker called Passion. Although she has a bit of a crush on a local police officer, she is not prepared to let him get close to her. There is such an anger in Freedom's character. A bitter and twisted past, a traumatic event and the loss of her kids has made her teeter on the edge of sanity for more than two decades. The disappearance of her daughter is going to tip her one way or the other. The cross country journey that she takes is one of pain, sorrow and a host of crazy events. Everyone she touches, everyplace she goes, each time she enters a room; it all ends up in bloody chaos. There are thrills after thrills, bodies piling up, firearms, motorcycles, drugs, sex and a whole lot of bad language. The atmosphere is dark. Very dark. There are religious cults, drug-fuelled family feuds and sexual mistreatment. But there are chinks of humanity in Freedom's soul and she shows how a mother is not always in control of her feelings. Jax Miller writes like a man, and I mean that as a compliment. There is a removal from femininity, an attempt to make a female just as bad-ass as her mostly male counterparts, and she manages to make a tattooed redhead, with a nasty mouth and a murky past, seem sexy and assured. This novel is a blend of early James Patterson or Jonathan Kellerman and has chinks that are reminiscent of Thomas Harris's The Silence of The Lambs. Horror, mistrust, deception and a cracker of a female protagonist. A top-notch, right rollicking read...
Freedom's Child is published on July 30 2015 by Harper Collins and will be available in TBP and ebook format. You can order it with 12% and Free Worldwide Postage here , thanks to Kennys.ie
The Bones of You by Debbie Howells
A teenage girl has disappeared. Just who is the most concerned?
Her mother, Jo, a waspy housewife with a penchant for the finer things in life? Kate, a fellow mother of a teenage girl who suddenly becomes Jo's lifeline? Delphine, the younger sister of the missing girl? Neal, the girls father, a television journalist who is adored by all? When a body is discovered in the local woodland, the small rural village is shocked and secrets begin to seep through doorways and through the trees. All the while, they are being watched by Rosie. Neither here nor there, she recalls the events leading up to her disappearance and monitors the unfolding drama surrounding her family and friends. There are two sides to every story. Just who can be believed?
This debut psychological thriller is bound to split opinions. One the one hand it dismisses the importance of police procedural within the thriller genre and, on the other, it emphasises the need to identify and understand a character. While there were holes in the plot, (surrounding police presence and social workers involvement, for example) the novel does not suffer as a result. The story begins straight away, with Kate learning of Rosie's disappearance. The local mothers seem upset but untouched by the episode and Kate throws herself at the mercy of the girl's mother, Jo. The story is told from Rosie's perspective too, lending an ethereal feel and drawing the reader into the world of uncertainty. Similar to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, there is a wonderful use of liminal space and tiny nuggets of information are drip-fed at a perfect pace. Other characters are solid, like Delphine, the troubled second daughter of Jo and Neal, who is a shady afterthought in her parent's lives. The reader is left to wonder at her safety, and indeed sanity, throughout. The ever-so-perfect Neal is obviously far from perfect from the start, but how much of the information given is true? The only character I wasn't keen on was Laura, a journalist and a former friend of Kate. She is one of the worst investigative journalist I have read in fiction. Basically, this is a story of belief. Just which side of the story is true? Keeping an open mind can be difficult and manipulation is a tool, almost as sharp as a knife...
"If you have two equally convincing opposing stories from two people who love each other, how do you work out what's true?"
"The thing is, one person's truth is very often another person's lie."
It is easy to see why this novel was acquired for six figures in a four-way auction. It is clever, wonderfully paced and is sure to be a huge word-of-mouth success. Psychological thrillers are all the rage at the moment, with The Girl on the Train hovering at the top of bestseller lists for over six months now and publishers wanting a piece of the the action. There are few books that will succeed, but I think this may well be one of them. A one sitting read, that will have your fingers worn as you turn the pages at breakneck speed. The characters may not be the brightest sparks, or even likeable, but they will suck you in to their world, and you may forget the one you actually live in for 340 pages. A brilliant read. Highly recommended...
The Bones of You is published by Macmillan is available in hardback and ebook format.
Readers can purchase the book from Kennys.ie with Free Worldwide Postage buy here
With Our Blessing by Jo Spain.
When a newborn baby is snatched from its mother's arms, in 1975, it destroys the life of a young woman and causes ripples of trauma down through the years. But she is one of many, and goes unnoticed, like them all.
Thirty five years later, and a brutal murder is uncovered in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The victim is elderly and has suffered a grisly death. DI Tom Reynolds and his team are called into to investigate. Before long, they discover a link to Ireland's sordid secret, The Magdalene Laundries. While they are offered assistance from the nuns of a former institution, they are met with a veil of secrecy and decades of Catholic hierarchy. Could one of the religious order be involved in such a personal killing? Could they commit such a sin? One thing is clear. The past is catching up on the convent and DI Reynolds needs to get there first...
Dublin author, Jo Spain, has debuted with gusto. This is not only another crime fiction book, in an already busy genre, it is a character based novel with a good bit of bite to it. DI Tom Reynolds is a protagonist that lingers. A good family man, not perfect, yet likable. Thankfully, he is not like other 'troubled' Inspectors. No drink problem, no sneaky cigarettes, no lusting after his female partner. and no shady dealings within the force. Just a genuine guy, doing his job, missing his wife and worrying about his daughter. This is refreshing, as a lot of crime fiction has the angst-ridden hero who battles inner demons alongside their cases. Not so with Tom. He has a great team, male and female and a comical driver to add to the mix. The make up of the investigative team is well rounded, with plenty of scope to feature them in subsequent novels.
The narrative is strong. While we are all aware now of the horrors behind the walls of the Magdalene Laundries, the author somehow manages to make it feel fresh and sharp. There is no blurring of facts, or large canvas brushstrokes. It is focused and fair. There is balance added with the stories from the nuns too. Far too often there is a general dogmatic approach to the sisters who worked behind these walls, although it is known that there were individuals who were also horrified with the circumstances in the laundries. Jo Spain acknowledges these nuns and yet still portrays the events with fact-based honesty.
This is a novel of tension, suspense and stories. Stories from the past and the present. From a convent in rural Ireland, to a police force in Dublin. The Gardaí are well presented, doing their jobs, intent on finding out the circumstances surrounding the murder. They are just like any of us. Doing their best, while making a few mistakes along the way. The convent is well described, with echoes of its heartbreaking past. The atmosphere is multi-layered, depending on the area of the building, or which sister is in the room at the time. I did lose track of the nuns at one point, and had to turn back a few pages, but not enough for me to lose focus. This is a page-turner, no doubt. The warmness of the characters made it an extra special read, with the added feeling of reading a modern Agatha Christie tipping it into one of the best crime thrillers I have read for a while. I applaud Jo Spain for this debut, and for introducing DI Tom Reynolds to us. Book two better not be long coming. We need more books like this...
With Our Blessing is published by Quercus and is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage and 23% discount, here.
Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye. (UK edition called Summertime).
Set in the fictional town of Heron Key, Florida in 1935, this debut novel mixes up fact and fiction to bring the reader through one of the worst hurricanes in history. Not only is the sea rising to dangerous levels and the ever-changing winds confusing the weather forecasters, but the tension in the town has reached its own boiling point. Racial prejudice is rampant and veteran soldiers have arrived in the area to help build a major bridge. The soldiers are a mixture of black and white but are all victims of discrimination, living in squalor and treated like animals. Things get even worse when a local white lady is found beaten and close to death following a Labor Day beach party. The assumption of guilt falls on a former army officer, a black man, down on his luck, yet there is no logical reason for this assumption. The law doesn't seem to apply in Florida and the voice of a black man is not going to be heard. As the storm comes closer and closer, just who is going to face the impending chaos and who will be affected the most?
This is historical fiction at its finest. Full of depth, despair, fear, hope, love, loss and friendship. So many emotions are brought to the foreground, it becomes the readers world for the novels entirety.
The author has included an informative historical note at the beginning of the book, which explains the whole idea behind the veterans of Heron Key. This is a real help to the reader, and adds more depth to the characters that are introduced along the way.
From page one, where were enter the world of Missy and Selma, (both black servants in a racist town, full of wealthy, bored and dishonest white folk), the novel reaches out and sucks you in. The blacks are plodding along, never expecting change, afraid to dream of a different world, The whites are, for the most, miserable. Money may buy them nice homes and cars, afford them access to the finest dressmakers and cooks, yet it can't buy love or genuine respect. It is hard not to draw comparisons to Katherine Stockett's The Help or The Secret Life of Beesby Sue Monk Kidd, as they both lovingly told of the relationships between blacks and whites in past times. However, this novel also has aspects which are reminiscent of The Color Purple. Strong, female characters, fighting to exist for the sake of their families, friends and their own sanity. It shows how women have, and still do, have to fight that but harder to find their inner happiness. The double weight of being black, and a woman, is not a new concept in literature, but Vanessa Lafaye has cast a new light on it. What concerned the women of this era more? The search for independence, love or education? The love they felt for the white children they were raising was heartrendingly real. The love they felt for their husbands and brothers was intense, deep and long lasting. This book looks at how these women and children were treated when a storm raged through at fatal intensity. It also juxtaposes this storyline with a look at some of the white residents, who hide behind their pale exteriors and masks of contentment. . The Kincaid family, barely able to look at each other, the town doctor, lonely and broken, the country club ladies and gents, who drip with dishonesty and the general store owner who just wants to prepare for the storm.
The characters are hopping off the page on a regular basis. There are quite a lot of them, but once you get past the initial introductions, each has a part to play in the overall narrative. The writing is superb. Blending the many worlds within Heron Key to a believable and atmospheric ideal. Chapter pacing is just right, historical facts not overloaded and yet there is a balance between the storm, the cultural angle and the love story. It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel, such is the standard, and I cannot recommend this enough. A wonderful blend of history and fiction, finely tuned research and warm writing style, makes this ideal for fans of Sue Monk Kidd and is definitely a book that should be bought, read and savoured. It will linger in many readers minds, as shall the memory of the victims of the 1935 hurricane. A stunning, striking and sensual debut. A complete joy to read.
Under a Dark Summer Sky is published by Sourcebooks and is available in paperback.
About Sisterland by Martina Devlin.
Sisterland is all about women. Men are only needed for breeding and heavy labour. Women no longer need them and every female has a role within the land. There are limited thoughts allowed, memories are censored via 'memory-keepers' and emotions are strictly controlled. The governing body of Sisterland are a group of nine women, who make all decisions for the good of their country. Mothers are not allowed bond with their babies, male children are not celebrated and the concept of love is unknown. Living quarters are allocated, not chosen, life partners are assigned and every day is extremely regimental. Women can not leave their homes without wearing masks to protect them from the atmosphere and 'nature' is piped in through speakers and air vents in the form of bird song and various scents.
Constance is struggling with controlling her emotions and when she is chosen to 'baby-fuse' and become pregnant, for the good of Sisterland, she feels 'mos' that she had never know existed. Her regimented surroundings start to seem smothering and she has more questions than answers. If only she had someone to talk to. Can she risk asking about her feelings? Is there anyone in Sisterland she can completely trust? Is this place really for the benefit of womankind or is there more than meets the eye?
Martina Devlin has delved into her imagination and thrust the reader into a world of 'what if'...
What if you were not allowed think what you wanted to? What if emotions were a commodity? What if you were only giving birth to increase the population? All combined, these concepts are fantastical, but when individually examined, many have occurred in many regimes, worldwide, already. How insane was the Nazi regime during WWII? How many baby girls have been dumped in China? How many young women were used for breeding an Aryan Race? Why do whole countries let a small number of people make such important decisions without questioning their motives? Simplistic, I know, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and this book brings the idea to a new level. Set in the near future, science is not the cause of this extreme idea of a female-led society. Unusually, there is no manipulation of embryos, artificial insemination or test tube trials. The good old fashioned baby-making ways are used, but under controlled guidance from specialised staff. Pregancy terms are shortened, to facilitate more births at a faster rate, and 'Sourcing places' take the place of hospitals. The Nine (the governing body of Sisterland) are a sinister crew, who have more than a few shady moments, making the book even more interesting. How far-fetched is this novel? Not very, it seems. Restricting the flow of information and editing history can lead to a very different future. Clever manipulation, piped smells and music, thought-forming chants and complete segregation. Is it completely improbable? This amazingly clever novel makes it seem eerily possible. Using an inquisitive young woman as its protagonist, the author is able to address the whole background to Sisterland, and how it came to be. The additional characters are fantastically drawn and link many issues seamlessly. It may take the reader a little while to settle into the language and identify with individual characters, but once in, you won't want to leave this bizarre world. Your dreams may move to another level, your thoughts on history may jar and your awareness of your own emotions may increase. Welcome to Sisterland. A world not that far removed from the one we live in...
About Sisterland is published by Ward River Press
The Dress by Kate Kerrigan.
1950s New York and one of the most beautiful women in the city is on the hunt for a dress. Not just any dress, one that is unique, alluring and awe inspiring. The hope is that the right dress could save her marriage. For Joy, beauty has always been part of her life. Blessed with looks, money and breeding, life has always been plain sailing. But lately things are not as straight forward. She finds herself needing a drink to help her get through the day, finds the walls of her fifth avenue home closing in around her and her husband drifting away for no obvious reason. A chance encounter with a talented young designer sets a plan in motion. The perfect party, the perfect dress and the return to the perfect marriage.
Meanwhile, unknown Irish seamstress, Honor, struggles to believe in her talent. She knows she can design and create, but is it enough for the high-maintenance socialite? Can she produce a dress so exquisite that it could change Joy's life? Or even her own? Thousands of dollars are spent as the two women pin their hopes on the dream of the perfect dress...
This is Kate Kerrigan's first novel with Head of Zeus and what a way to kick off! Using her talent for writing historical fiction, and blending it with a current timeline, this novel is pitched perfectly for the reader who wishes to escape to another world. There are actually a few worlds rolled into the this; 1950s New York, 1930s Ireland, Present day London, Miami and Ireland, all with their own tales to tale. Lily is a vintage fashion blogger and while researching images for her blog, she stumbles across a photo of Joy in an outstanding, intricate dress which blows the blogger's mind. As the woman also has the same surname, Lily delves some more and discovers they are loosely related. The photo inspires Lily to dust down her dressmaking equipment and re-create the dress.
The narrative shifts from time and location with ease and there is a softness about the overall story that remains throughout. While there are plenty of design and dress making moments in the novel, it is written in such a way that the reader is not overloaded. The big selling point of The Dress is very simple: imagination. The descriptions of New York in its Hey Day, the dresses, the dinner parties, the cocktail hours and the need for a drinks cabinet in the drawing room. Those days may be long gone, along with women's unequal status (for the most), but that doesn't mean we can't slip into these women's marabou slippers, and lives, for a bit. Look at the success of the TV show, Mad Men. Don Draper and fashion to die for. Simple. The imagination is also used to bring us on fashion shoots in 2014 Miami and lace-hunting trips to rural Ireland. Lily has a part to play in all of this, but it is Joy and Honor who remain to the forefront. Two very different women, from immensely different backgrounds, they somehow find solace in each other's company and form a special bond while creating the masterpiece. But what happens when it's finished? Can their friendship withstand the aftermath?
This is women's fiction at its finest. The writing is flawless, flows nicely and has a perfect pace. The past links well with the present and the overall package is finely crafted. A stunning cover is sure to call out to many from the shelves of bookshops everywhere,in September (when it is released in hardback) and no doubt will be downloaded to many an e-reader this summer. For anyone who has gazed longingly at the pages of Vogue, drooled over the costumes in period dramas or wondered what rich socialites in Manhattan really did all day, this is for you. A fusion of fashion and feeling...
The Dress is published by Head of Zeus
You, Me & Other People by Fionnuala Kearney
Beth and Adam have parted ways. Not in an amicable way either. Beth discovers Adam has cheated on her, for the second time, and has had enough. Their daughter Meg, is away at University and Beth just cannot take the lies and deceit anymore. She struggles to move on from their break-up as she doesn't know herself as a single unit, just as a wife and a mother. Rattling around her marital home, she wonders if, by kicking Adam out, has she done the right thing. Was a it a knee jerk reaction to his affair? Can she forgive and forget? Can she manage without him?
Adam, meanwhile, is struggling to come to terms with the break-up himself. The novelty of a younger woman, sex on tap and a bachelor life is not as appealing as one would think. He misses the home comforts and the magnitude of his dalliance is swallowing him up. Things are even about to get worse, as an unexpected phone call causes more secrets to come to the surface, and spill into his life. Things couldn't get worse, or could they?
Fionnuala Kearney has written a novel that began so realistically that I felt I was right there beside Beth, almost immediately. The writing is so subtle that you find yourself lost in the world of this family from beginning to end. Beth seems to be a representation of a large percent of women over forty, who have done the major child rearing, picked the dream home and decorated it to within an inch of its life, all while supporting their husbands in a quasi cheer-leading way. A stay at home mother who has a hobby or a 'calling' (in this case, song writing), which occasionally brings home some money, means that Beth has been cocooned in this suburban world, with a kind of separation from reality. Firmly convinced of her husband's adoration, she never suspects he would play away from home again and her world shatters in one foul swoop. Their daughter, nineteen year old Meg, is also devastated by her father's infidelity and she lays on the guilt trip in a heavy handed way. Also gunning for Adam's demise is Karen, Beth's best friend and confident throughout the whole ordeal. Even Adam's younger brother, Ben, is horrified at his sibling's behaviour. All in all, Adam is not popular. With anyone. While we read of his feeling lost and alone, it is hard to feel any sympathy for the creator of his own hard luck.
All through the book, there are little clues to a more uneven past than Beth could imagine. Like chinks of light through uneven floorboards, there is enough to warrant further investigation into the murky darkness, but with the knowledge that you may not like what you find.
Secrets and lies. Who are they usually to protect? The liar, or the people who trust them?
This debut caused me to basically miss a whole day with my family. I knew by the third page that I was hooked and that there was no point in putting it down. I read straight through, until my eyes were unable to fight the good fight anymore, but only with the knowledge that it was the weekend and I could pick up the baton nice and early the next day.
A clever look at human nature, the differences between men and women and the dynamics of the 'average' family. We all have boxes in the attic, labelled and forgotten. How many of us have secrets that we hope remained labelled and forgotten? More, I expect, that you would think...
Highly recommended. Ideal for fans of Jojo Moyes and Diane Chamberlain.
You, Me & Other People is published by HarperCollins
CHECK BACK SOON FOR PART TWO OF MY TOP READS OF THE YEAR
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